Where to stay
Dar Ben Gacem
A 17th-century townhouse in a secure residential part of the medina, five minutes from the Great Mosque. Beautifully converted by Leila Ben Gacem, there are seven rooms, all interestingly furnished, and a wonderful roof terrace. Doubles from £75. 38 Rue du Pacha, Tunis La Medina, 00 216 71 563 742, darbengacem.com
Dar El Marsa
A slice of Cannes in Tunis. A smart new hotel right in the middle of La Marsa beachfront promenade. Large bedrooms are a given, the front ones coming with sea-view balconies. Luxurious bars, restaurant, jazz nights and rooftop pool. Doubles from £155. 75 Avenue Habib Bourguiba, La Marsa, 00 216 71 728 000, darelmarsa.com
Four Seasons Hotel Tunis
Arabesque architecture, lush gardens and fountain-dotted courtyards are the calling cards of this new luxe hotel in the affluent Gammarth neighbourhood. Added draws include the city’s largest bedrooms, four restaurants, a beachfront locale and a Roman-style spa. Doubles from £300. Zone Touristique Cap Gammarth, 1057 La Marsa, 00 216 31 260 000, fourseasons.com
A 22-storey luxury business hotel, mundane in design but comfortable and well situated on the main avenue off the ville moderne, ten minutes’ walk from the medina. Doubles from £90. 50 Avenue Habib Bourguiba, 00 216 71 347 477, elmouradi.com
La Maison Dorée
One for the budget traveller, a nice 1930s-style hotel in a busy area between the station and the French Embassy. Elderly but characterful and run by the same pleasant family for 40 years. Doubles from £22. 3 Rue El Koufa, 00 216 71 332 401, vivehotels.com
La Villa Bleue
Recently opened boutique hotel in an enchanting, historic hillside house in Sidi Bou Said. Secluded but close to the old village centre. Rooms with balconies with views to sea, pretty gardens, a small pool and good restaurant. Doubles from £270. 68 Rue Kennedy, Sidi Bou Said, 00 216 71 742 000, lavillableuesidibousaid.com
Tunis is the capital of Tunisia in North Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert. Flights from the UK take around three hours and the time is one hour ahead of GMT. Currency is the Tunisian dinar. In April, the average high temperature is 20C and the average low is 16C.
Air France flies multiple times a day from Heathrow and Manchester to Tunis-Carthage International, from £186 return. airfrance.com
TunisAir also flies direct to Tunis-Carthage International from London Heathrow, from £230 return. tunisair.com
Discover Tunisia is the official tourist board website and provides plenty of inspiration for planning your trip as well as practical advice on getting around when you’re there. discovertunisia.com
A Tunisian Tale by Hassouna Mosbahi (American University in Cairo Press, £11) tells the moving story of a mother’s struggle to get by with her family in the slums in Tunisia.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for two courses with a glass of wine or beer, unless otherwise stated
The latest creation of a canny and successful French chef by the ‘nom de cuisine’ of Axel D. This smart new arrival on the rapidly gentrifying restaurant mile of the old fishing port area offers a range of three-week matured steak dishes, a number of French classics, and a more interesting selection of seafood than usual, with oysters from Bizerte, oursins (sea urchins) couteaux (razor clams) and a full Paris-style plateau de fruits de mer for £13.50 per person. From £18. 47 Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, La Goulette, 00 216 201 32 000
Le Café Vert
An institution of La Goulette for over 50 years, cleverly positioned mid-range between flash newcomers like La Petite Sicile and cheaper, more popular ones such as La Sirene. Bustling traditional interior and glass-walled terrace, white linen on the tables, excellent unpretentious service and a wide range of fish and seafood of superb quality cooked in numerous ways. Nice atmosphere. From £10. 68 Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, La Goulette, 00 216 71 736 156
Dar El Jeld
Large and seriously luxurious restaurant popular with business people and government figures on the edge of the medina in a sprawling grand historic mansion. Formal stately service, a large menu with unusual dishes like tajine sebnekh (spinach tajine) and couscous with kadid (Cap Bon salted lamb) or calamari farci (squid stuffed with its own tentacles, breadcrumbs and herbs). From £25. 5 Rue Dar El Jeld, Tunis Medina, 00 216 71 560 916, dareljeld.com
Top-notch creative but traditionally based cooking from an eminent Tunis restaurateur family in an airy, well-designed room on the south side of the medina. Recherché dishes like wild spinach, delicious couscous osban (tripe), plus excellent-value two-course menu at £7. From £9.145 Rue de la Kasbah, Tunis Medina, 00 216 71 261 026
Fondouk El Attarine
Intelligently conceived café and restaurant in an old caravanserai in the heart of the medina. There are a few smart and discreet boutiques attached to it. A courtyard setting offers plenty of welcome light and space, service is good and it serves wonderful traditional dishes of the day. They play music some evenings until closure at 7pm. From £8. 9 bis Souk El Attarine Tunis Medina, 00 216 71 322 244, fondoukelattarine.com
One of Tunis’ oldest gastronomic restaurants given a very successful update with a fresh new white interior and little separate bar/ cooking stations. A lengthy and sophisticated menu using top-quality local ingredients such as tuna, poutargue, and first-rate seafood is selected and overseen by chef Michel Mehdi. From £18. 5 Rue El Arbi Zarrouk, Sidi Abdelaziz, La Marsa, 00 216 248 184 73, le-golfe.com
High-quality cuisine (mainly fish) that’s a mix of trad and more inventive styles, served up in a very attractive white and blue rustic setting and a pretty tree-shaded courtyard right beside Sidi Bou Said’s small yacht harbour. Octopus grilled with tarragon, lobster, excellent fish couscous. From £15. Le Port, Sidi Bou Said, 00 216 71 980 004
This old place has seen better days, the clientele ditto, but it remains full of character with its chipped Andalucian wall tiles. It still knocks out decent and very well-priced versions of Franco-Tunisian classics, too. The menu’s heavy on seafood including a rather good couscous au poisson and occasionally rare curiosities like stewed eel. From £7.50. 7 Rue Ali Bach Hamda, 00 216 71 252 061
- Brik (or brick)
- Thin sheet of pastry, folded to contain an egg, parsley and other ingredients – tuna, seafood, minced lamb – and fried
- More familiar in the UK as ‘shakshouka’. Stewed mixed vegetables, similar to ratatouille, sometimes served with a fried egg
- Soup, often of meat stock with meat, vegetables and vermicelli
- Fine grains of wheat semolina, of Berber origin and one of the staples of North Africa. Typically steamed and served with vegetables, stews or grilled meats or fish
- Paste of hot red peppers and garlic common to North Africa, but of Tunisian origin and most extensively used in Tunisia. Produced in the Cap Bon region, especially around Nabeul, the harissa capital. Added to dishes or served by itself as dip at beginning of meals
- An array of small dishes served as snacks or as appetisers before meals, like a North African meze
- Eggs scrambled with tomatoes, peppers, harissa and sometimes other ingredients such as merguez sausage
- Grill or barbecue, applied to meat, and in the case of the common salade méchouia, to a salad including grilled vegetables
- Thin spicy sausage of beef or mutton
- A common part of Tunisian repertoire, either in the form of spaghetti or more indigenous varieties such as naicer (sometimes rendered nouacer), small square flakes of pasta
- Poutargue (or boutargue)
- Cured, salted roe of mullet. As mucha delicacy here as in France and Italy. Often grated or chopped onto dishes such as pasta. Produced on the north coast, including in Sidi Bou Said, which is home of the prized La Phénicienne brand
- Quite different from Moroccan tagine, a sort of oven-cooked frittata of eggs, vegetable and other ingredients including chopped meats, often topped with grated cheese and finished under a grill
Food and Travel Review
It’s early morning in Tunis and the city is springing to vibrant life. The grocers’ shops at the edge of the medina are jammed with people buying little black Aleppo pine seeds, vital ingredients for the semolina-like cream known as assidat zgougou, which is served for breakfast to celebrate the prophet Mohammed on feast days. The city sings with hawkers, locals bartering and market sellers vociferously peddling their wares. It’s exactly as I like it. I’m here to explore this quartier, one of the best-preserved historic walled towns of Mediterranean North Africa. Over three decades of visits to Tunis, I’ve never got beyond a tentative gauntlet-trot into the medina, past the lines of persistent stallholders and touts in the brightly lit, stone-paved alleys you enter on leaving the wide French-built streets of the colonial-era ville moderne. Which leaves unexplored dozens of souks, each named after its speciality, numerous important mosques, medersas (old Islamic schools) and hundreds of grand mansions hiding sumptuous salons behind studded wooden street doors. And doubtless a lot of interesting catering, because Tunisian cuisine is easily the equal of Moroccan or Algerian, and in the realm of fish, superior to both. I ensure I have time for an early lunch before tackling the sensual onslaught of the medina. Fish couscous and Mornag rosé in L’Orient, one of the faded old Franco-Tunisian brasseries I discovered with delighted relief years ago, after a grim dry spell in neighbouring Gaddafi-era Libya. A characteristically Tunisian touch, L’Orient mixes cooking broth and harissa into the grain before serving to make a lovely moist mass, the perfect accompaniment to a firm white loup de mer (sea bass) fresh from the market, with a few carrots, green peppers and waxy potatoes richly imbued with stock.
Just off the Avenue Bourguiba, the Champs-Élysées of modern Tunis, L’Orient is minutes from the great bustling fish hall of the central market, the rather gloomy cathedral, the arcades of shops and cafés, and the French Embassy, which is fortress-like with barbed wire, armoured cars and troops in full camouflage.
About 15 kilometres north on the coast are the smart seaside suburbs of Carthage, Sidi Bou Said and La Marsa, and the most recent addition, the bland marble-clad office blocks of the Saudi-financed Berges du Lac. One of these houses the new, rather dull, British Embassy, its former, grand, Ottoman-style premises beside the medina having become a rather garish hotel.
My own billet is a discreet and classy hotel, the Dar Ben Gacem, a beautifully converted 17th-century Turkish-era townhouse whose roof terraces look out over the narrow residential part of the medina and echo with the simultaneous chant of muezzins from half a dozen nearby minarets. A few streets to the south is the Place de la Kasbah, a huge paved square flanked by government ministries and the City Hall, where the old kasbah once stood. (This great fortified Ottoman complex would have crowned the medina’s international uniqueness had it not been demolished after Independence.) Nearby are grand old restaurants such as Essaraya, which you can be guided to by a servant with a lantern who meets you on the steps of the Ministry of Finance, and Dar El Jeld, a converted historic mansion frequented by well-heeled tourists, businessmen and visiting VIPs.
Forgoing dinner in Dar Ben Gacem – the cook Alem apparently does a mean fish stew – I head for Dar El Jeld. It’s all arched stone portals and massive doors, vestibules with sofas, and a choice of candlelit tables in the tile-walled patio, its surrounding mezzanine, or side alcoves. A musician plays malouf music on a qanoun (zither). Elderly waiters sporting bow ties bring menus and wine lists: this is the only restaurant in the medina which serves alcohol, due to the number of mosques, within whose proximity alcohol is forbidden.
The menu is traditional and intriguing. I eat a tajine malsouka – egg tajine wrapped in brik pastry – and after much agonising between couscous kadid (salted lamb, a speciality of the nearby Cap Bon region) and couscous au calamari farci (stuffed squid), I go for the latter, which is excellent. An atmospheric walk home takes me through dark alleys haunted by the occasional shadowy figure walking by and bands of wailing foraging kittens.
The other end of the medina’s catering spectrum consists of stalls serving whatever street food is in vogue, until recently shawarma and now chapatis. Both are ‘Tunisified’ with tweaks such as baguette for the Lebanese shawarma and harissa for thin fried Indian chapatis. Plus male-dominated Moorish cafés like Dribat and Sowatine, some with long rows of chairs and tables in the alleyways outside, for loitering over conversation, tea or coffee sipping and smoking shishas.
Between the two extremes, there’s a newer category of cheaper, less formal and more modern places, such as the Fondouk El Attarine. It occupies a former caravanserai, one of the big arcaded courtyard fondouks (inns) of the medinas, once lodgings for commercial travellers and their animals. With its open central patio surrounded by gallery spaces perfect for smart boutiques, the caravanserai is an architectural model ideally suited to modern catering adaptation, rather like the Victorian banking halls of British cities. This one has something of the atmosphere of a North African Fortnum & Mason with good food, teas and drinks throughout the day. I enjoy an excellent plat du jour of naicer osban, a Tunisian pasta with a sort of haggis of savoury tripe.
Three other options from this sector stand out. There’s El Ali, reached via a narrow stairway which opens to reveal two floors of attractive rooms and a charming roof terrace, where a varied crowd eats delicious traditional dishes at lunch, and patisseries with tea throughout the afternoon. There’s Doken, which is the nearest thing to a Parisian hipster bistro in Tunis and is still unknown to the majority of medina dwellers. It occupies a former jeans shop on a pretty corner minutes from the Great Mosque. The creation of Marouan Zbidi, a young architect who orchestrated everything from the short cheap menu of simple Mediterranean staples to the enamel plates, Doken draws a relaxed, arty and discriminating clientele: I bump into the manageress of El Ali having a late lunch.
The most obvious choice of this sector is Dar Slah. This is the second restaurant of the Smooli family, whose patriarch founded Chez Slah in the ville moderne, one of the pillars of 1980s Tunis fine dining. Dar Slah is cheaper, less formal and more experimental. Sabri Smooli, son of the founder, has me taste a new starter he’s experimenting with, a slice of tajine with squid ink, crispy squid and courgette, and some harissa-braised wild spinach he’s found a rare patch of. He also proudly shows me a dozen particularly fine wild daurades (gilt-head bream) he’s brought back from the fish market.
You can’t spend all your time in the medina, above all when it comes to fish. La Goulette calls. In Tunis, fish restaurants are synonymous with the port quartier, and it’s up there with Carthage and Sidi Bou Said as favourite names for Tunisian restaurants in Europe. La Goulette occupies a spit of land between the Mediterranean and the great flamingo-dotted Lake of Tunis. Past the commercial and ferry port, and the dowdy 1900s apartment blocks of the once major Sicilian colony, you reach a quayside with lines of big trawlers, a morning fish market and gangs of scavenging moggies by night. A line of café terraces overlooking the small beach are quiet apart from summer weekends. A fisherman disentangling nets by his little beached craft complains about the voracious giant foreign trawlers which scour the seabed a few miles off shore.
But La Goulette, like all the northern sea front, is far from dormant. On the Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, old flats are undergoing luxurious renovation. The restaurant scene seems to be vibrant, too, with half a dozen glossy new places recently opened. The biggest buzz concerns Bohëme, a gleaming glass and chrome brasserie run by a Toulouse-born chef and entrepreneur, which breaks the La Goulette mould by focusing not on traditionally cooked fish but on a display cabinet of high-quality meat. ‘Tunisians have always eaten meat straight from slaughter,’ Axel Desessart, the proprietor tells me, over a glass of local rosé from Domaine Kurubis made by an oenologist compatriot.
But old-school La Goulette isn’t about to disappear yet. Down the road, La Sirene is still crammed, the wet-tiled front area full of clients choosing their dinners from the glistening silver-finned specimens piled high on slabs or hanging from hooks, then returning to their tables while the orders are whisked to the kitchen by harried waiters. Twenty or thirty rivals offer competition, some are smart, some basic. The glass-terraced Le Café Vert is my favourite. Founded in 1955, it is still run by the same family. The Chenoufis, like the residents of the Jewish retirement home on the avenue, nowadays guarded by barriers and armed police, are proudly surviving members of the once great Jewish population of Tunis, most of whose restaurateur members now ply their trade in Paris. Le Café Vert does a great fish couscous, all manner of seafood pasta, coquillages (shellfish), and a classic complet de poisson (fish of the day with chips, peppers and tastira sauce). All are served up to a busy crowd of unpretentious regulars.
If La Goulette is a rough-and-tumble of seamen, alley cats and fish-loving gourmands, the next suburbs along the north shore are more fashionably bourgeois, with a leavening of artists, Bohemian hedonists and the seriously rich. After Carthage – location of the slightly disappointing remains of the great Phoenician city state which preceded modern Tunis – there’s an undulating green area dotted with great mansions and embassies, before the beautiful clifftop village of Sidi Bou Said. With its bougainvillea-draped, white-washed cobbled alleys, its famous blue doors and balconies and its wealthy residents it’s the Tunisian equivalent of Santorini, although without the price tag. Then there’s La Marsa, which is home to great gated tourist hotel complexes, but also to good food. In one of Tunis’ oldest restaurants, Le Golfe, there’s an exquisitely delicate spaghetti with local poutargue (salted, cured fish roe), served in a smart dining room overlooking a beautiful rocky cove.
A festival in the medina turns out to be unexpectedly lively. The assidat zgougou for breakfast is pleasant enough in its semolina-ish way, though the buttery croissants and fried eggs are more my thing. Over coffee, I talk to hotelier Leila Ben Gacem about food and religion. Apart from the festival assida, what food accompanies religious ceremonies? Warm-blooded mammals, normally sheep, are required for the garnish on the couscous served at processions and trance ceremonies. As if on cue, a faint hubbub of skirling pipes and banging drums becomes apparent, getting nearer. The surrounding alleys are filling with a marching crowd, thousands strong, waving colourful flags, chanting, some dancing to the rhythm of bands of brilliantly clothed black stambeli musicians with drums, fifes, tambourines and metal castanets. They’re on their way to the nearby mosque of Sidi Mahrez, the patron saint of Tunis, so I tag along for the ride, ready for another enjoyable day off piste in this civilised, attractive and thoroughly tasty little city.
Get Premium access to all the latest content online
Subscribe and view full print editions online... Subscribe